Nicola Watts
Tech / Innovation
What Can We Learn From 2017 Pioneering Inventors?

Now in its 12th year, the European Inventor awards recognise outstanding inventors, not only for their scientific achievements but also for their impact on society and the economy. The awards are presented annually by the European Patent Office (EPO) as a means of providing both public recognition and incentivising future winners.

2017 was a record year with over 450 nominations. Anyone can nominate a person or team for an award, as long as at least one European patent has been granted by the EPO for the nominee’s invention. Both EPO experts and an independent jury of 12, made up of patent experts, academics, the media, and renowned entrepreneurs and inventors, selected the 15 finalists.

There are six categories. Five are judged by the jury: Industry, Research, SME’s, Non-European Countries and Lifetime Achievement. The sixth, the Popular Prize, is the result of a public online vote. This year more than 119,000 votes were cast online, doubling last year’s record vote of 56,700.

The winners each receive a trophy shaped like a sail designed by Miriam Irle, a German industrial designer. A sail was chosen as it symbolises exploration and pioneering human ingenuity, to venerate today’s modern day explorers. This year’s awards were hosted in Venice, and the trophy was crafted in Murano glass.

The awards honour the most important inventors who have made technological breakthroughs that have provided solutions to some of the greatest challenges of our time. Not only will these have improved and saved lives, but they have also created jobs, contributed to economic prosperity, and grown markets. Let’s meet the six winners.

1. Industry 

Dutch haematologist Jan van den Boogaart and Austrian biochemist Oliver Hayden developed a fully automated, computer-based blood test for malaria. Dubbed the silent killer, Malaria is responsible for over 600,000 deaths a year and over 200 million infections. It is also extremely difficult to diagonose; only 10% of all cases worldwide are properly diagnosed. This rapid blood test utilises a data fingerprint for malaria with 97% accuracy. They’re now working on early detection of leukemia.

2. Research

A team of European scientists and engineers, Laurent Lestarquit (France), José Ángel Ávila Rodríguez (Spain), Günter W. Hein (Germany), Jean-Luc Issler (France) and Lionel Ries (France/Belgium) were recognised for their work in boosting the accuracy and efficiency of Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system (GNSS). The team simultaneously ensured its independence and compatability with the US GPS and Russian GLONASS systems, making Galileo the world’s most advanced global navigation satellite system (GNSS) when it becomes fully operational in 2020.

3. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s)

Günter Hufschmid and his team at the German company Deurex developed ‘Pure,’ a super sponge of micronised wax capable of absorbing nearly seven times its own weight in hydrophobic liquids such as those found in oil or chemical spillages. Not only that, it can be wrung out like a sponge and reused immediately. As happens with all the best inventions, ten tonnes of the material was created by mistake in the factory, but its subsequent use was inspired by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spillage disaster. It’s already proven its worth in helping to clean up Nigeria’s highly-polluted Niger Delta, and in cleaning up residential heating oil spills in Germany.

4. Non-EPO Countries

James G. Fujimoto and Eric A. Swanson from the United States and Robert Huber from Germany developed optical coherence tomography (OCT). This is the first technology that delivers real-time images of human tissue at microscopic clarity, allowing doctors to peer into living tissue, removing the need for invasive probing or surgical biopsies. OCT has become the world standard for ophthalmology and early detection of glaucoma and other serious eye diseases, as well as being used to diagnose cancer and heart disease.

5. Lifetime achievement

Italian microbiologist Rino Rappuoli, widely regarded as the ‘father of modern-day vaccinations,’ has saved millions of lives. His pioneering work has seen the eradication in the developed world of diphtheria, bacterial meningitis and whooping cough, and a doubling of life expectancy, together with the creation of a new way to engineer immunisations.

6. Popular Prize

Moroccan pharmacologist Adnane Remmal won the public vote for his antibiotic booster drug that combines the antimicrobial effects of essential oils from local plants such as marjoram, thyme and oregano, to improve the efficacy of standard antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections. It causes no side effects and is strong enough to fight multi-drug-resistant bacteria that are currently causing around 700,000 deaths annually. Expected to come to market later this year, it’s heralded as the ‘magic bullet’ to help turn the tide against multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

What lessons can these inspirational winners provide us?

  1. Boogaart and Oliver Hayden: “Innovation is an on-going journey, never give up”.
  2. Lestarquit and Ávila Rodríguez: “When the nations of Europe work together, the whole world benefits”.
  3. Günter Hufschmid: “Think out of the box: success from combining two disasters.”
  4. Fujimoto, Swanson and Huber: The importance of inter-disciplinary research; “A lot of innovation happens at the interface between fields”.
  5. Rappuoli: “My idea was the result of frustration. I wanted to solve a problem but the technology wouldn’t allow me. When the genome was published, I thought this is the revolutionary technology”.
  6. Remmal: “In nature we can also find solutions. Everything is in nature; you just have to find it”.

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